Ukraine has been suffering from the destructive consequences of Russia-Ukraine war since last nine-months. In fact, it has increased the numbers of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Therefore, Ukrainian forensic scientists are investigating Russian war crimes, in a wartime first using a mobile DNA lab van.
While speaking at the International Symposium on Human Identification in Washington, D.C., about the van forensic team’s findings, Lieutenant Colonel Sylvain Hubac of France’s National Gendarmerie (IRCGN), said, “This is the first use of mobile DNA in a war context”.
France sent the mobile lab and its equipment to Kyiv, a roughly $1 million donation, in response to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for investigations after the Bucha massacre was discovered in April.
The mobile DNA lab, emblazoned with a Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office sign, helped investigate some 450 initially unidentified bodies found at Izium, according to Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Dmytro Chubenko. So far the van has helped to identify 150 of them.
In April and May, a French gendarmerie team used this van to investigate victims of the Russian occupation of Bucha, north of Kyiv. The investigation was carried out by DNA sequencing of victims remains and of people searching for missing and presumed dead family members.
Now newly trained Ukrainian investigators have deployed the van to investigate mass graves found in Izium, outside Kharkiv, uncovered in September. Hubac reported that in testing at the mass grave site behind St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in Bucha, victim samples produced identifiable DNA in 98 percent of cases tested by the mobile lab.
Usually the identification of the victims is performed after the war fighting is stopped, but till that time the dead bodies degrade and forensic evidence disappears, especially when bodies are piled up in mass graves.
Hence, performing the analysis instead in a mobile lab speeds the time of identification to help other investigators, eliminates travel time to morgues that degrades evidence, and replaces government labs destroyed by war.
This mobile DNA van contains a full, sealed laboratory for analyzing genetic results from victims. Even burned, co-mingled remains yielded good and distinct genetic profiles from swabs of the victims, the team found.
Tom White, an editor of “Silent Witness: Forensic DNA Evidence in Criminal Investigations and Humanitarian Disasters” said, “The French Gendarmerie effort seems unique in conducting the forensic DNA in a mobile DNA lab and combining that with teaching Ukrainian scientists traditional forensic methods on-site”.
Experts have suggested that the advent of a mobile DNA lab aiding forensic investigators on the scene of war atrocities marks a step forward in these kinds of war crimes investigations.
According to the Forensic Anthropologist, Nicholas Marquez-Grant of the United Kingdom’s Cranfield University there is a real need to identify victims as soon as possible because of the risk of samples degrading, and in a way that preserves the chain of custody of evidence.
It has been reported by Chubenko that besides the French investigators, who trained 11 Ukrainian forensic scientists in using the DNA lab van, Dutch investigators are also helping Ukraine document atrocities and working with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands.
The DNA lab van is now back in Kharkiv awaiting full supplies, with Ukraine hoping to acquire another mobile DNA van to help in future investigations, as reports grow of abuses in the recently liberated Kherson region.
It has been reported that France intends to donate a second mobile lab van early next year.